These words come to mind when I think about what I strive for as I teach writing in the midst of a global pandemic. I miss the intimacy that comes from gathering on the rug and sitting shoulder to shoulder with students. I strive to build a class culture built on trust as we negotiate spotty internet connection and desks outfitted with shields, positioned in rows, six feet apart. While nothing about this feels normal, I continue to face these unprecedented circumstances by holding true to my values and beliefs about what is best for my students. Now more than ever, my students and I need time for authentic and engaging low-stakes writing: the kind that creates communities of writers.
Launching the Year with an Open Genre Unit
With these needs in mind, I launched writing workshop in September 2020 with a month of free choice. For three weeks, students wrote persuasive letters, fictional stories, graphic novels, poems, and personal narratives. After celebrating the conclusion of the unit, I could see a hunger in students to keep working on these projects. Jackson was anxious to write a sequel to his short story about a magical RV. Katie was ready to write the second chapter of her book about a tsunami that strikes her town. I asked myself: How can I hold onto this energy and excitement around writing and make space for these projects while also honoring required curriculum units? The Joyful Writer’s Club was the answer.
What is the Joyful Writers’ Club?
The Joyful Writers’ club is composed of fifth-grade students who come together once a week at lunchtime to work on writing projects of their choice. Once students have finished eating most of their lunch, I dim the lights and put on some music to signal writing time.
The Benefits of the Joyful Writers’ Club
The Joyful Writers’ Club supports students in identifying as writers who set intentional goals and write regularly in ways that matter to them. The other day a student turned to me and announced: “I really feel like a writer this year.” A parent shared this about his daughter: “We’ve never seen this writing side of her before” and another told me that her son: “wants to be a writer when he grows up.” How do writing experiences like the Joyful Writers’ Club honor identity and build community? They nurture students to become:
- Writers who make choices: If we want students’ to grow as writers, we need to provide opportunities for them to live as writers. This means encouraging them to follow their instincts when it comes to choosing what to write.
- Writers who often have more than one project in the works at a time. For me, I write notebook entries, blog posts, poems and letters while I am also writing a book. JWC provides space for writers to work on projects that matter to them while they experience focused study of narrative, information and opinion writing during writing workshop time.
- Writers who make plans, have habits and routines. After our first week of JWC, a student asked me: “Can I work on my writing club project at home?” His question made me realize that I needed to help students plan when they can write outside of school. Below is the chart that came from this conversation. Additionally, beginning and ending our session with goal setting and celebration teaches students that writers make plans, set goals and work to achieve them.
- Writers who carry notebooks and write anytime they can! In addition to setting aside time for writing, we have conversations about the importance of carrying a notebook and seeking out moments when we can “sneak” in some writing. Just like we take out a book after we finish a task or wait for an appointment, we can take out our notebook and write.
- Writers who experience the therapeutic and grounding benefits of writing. JWC offers students a space to experience working through life’s challenges, especially the fear, loss and isolation of a global pandemic, by writing. One student shared that he uses writing to make sense of events in his life. Taking the time to sit and write alongside my students is a grounding experience for me. It helps me to stop, be present and focus on what really matters to me: connecting with students in authentic and meaningful ways.
- Writers who write in a community: Writing in a community helps students produce more writing and experience the celebrations and challenges of being a writer. After sharing writing and accomplishments, students cheer for one another, and offer positive and constructive feedback. Lately, I have noticed students checking in with each other regularly during writing workshop and other academic writing times.
- Writers who build relationships with others. Bringing students together in writing communities inspired bonding and connection. As Matt Glover asserts in Craft and Process Studies: Units that Provide Writers with Choice of Genre, giving students total choice reveals who they are as writers and what they care about as people. I’ve gained insight into students’ passions and values. Matthew’s information book on hockey expressed his passion for the sport. Emily’s letter to her parents presenting her case for a pet fish revealed dynamics in her family along with her love of pets. When I share my writing, I am inviting students in to know me as a person. This fosters a supportive and loving community inside and outside of our school walls.
Writers who greet any writing task with confidence and skill. Identifying as writers and choosing to write regularly in low stakes ways within a supportive community, breeds confidence. I have found that students are more willing to take risks with high stakes writing tasks.
Getting Creative with Time and Form
Interested in creating opportunities for students to write in self-directed ways but not sure when and how to do it? Here are a few things to consider.
When to schedule time for writing club: Not everyone can choose to hold a writing club during lunchtime, especially with Covid restrictions, so consider search for 20-25 minutes where you can offer time. Our writing club started on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 9:00-9:20 as students unpacked and got ready to start their day. While 30 minutes is ideal, a slightly shorter chunk of time that invites students to make choices do the kind of writing that is most meaningful to them is valuable.
Writing Club in the Remote Setting. Writing clubs translate to any setting. In fact, I originally facilitated them with my colleague, Beth, to support our shared third and fourth grade students this past spring. We followed the same format only we met via Google Meet and instead of eating lunch, students spent the first few minutes catching up and socializing. During writing time, we muted our mics and left our cameras on. All we needed to do is look up at the screen and see one another writing to feel a sense of community.
Make space in your calendar for open genre units. Take a look at your pacing calendar for writing. Are there times when you can devote one to two weeks to open genre writing like the kind that students do during writing club? After our initial open genre unit and a few months of writing club, students began asking for more time to work on their projects. So I inserted open genre units for times when we all need a little breather: before and after vacations, after testing and at the end of the year. Below is a draft of my calendar.
This pandemic has taught us that above all else, relationships, connection and expression matter. They are the heart of everything we do with students. I carry the words of my students and their parents in my heart: students want choice and the freedom to process what is happening around them. Carving out space and time for experiences that honor student agency and their diverse writing lives is not only empowering but also gifts them with the habit of writing and the identity as writers. We can write our way through this pandemic, together and emerge as writers.
Krista Senatore is a fifth-grade teacher and co-founder of Lit Coach Connection, an educational consulting company located in upstate New York. She specializes in balanced literacy, reading and writing workshop, and supporting striving readers and writers. Krista is passionate about writing. You can connect with Krista on Twitter @LitCoachConnect or like her on the Lit Coach Connection Facebook page.